Appalachian State beat Texas A&M and hosted College GameDay for a game against Troy that it won via Hail Mary. Troy won 12 games and a conference title and finished ranked for the first time. South Alabama won 10 games for the first time. James Madison found itself ranked barely one month into its first FBS season.
Coastal Carolina spent time ranked for the third straight year, and while the Chanticleers lost their head coach, they kept their star quarterback for a fourth season. Southern Miss enjoyed its first bowl win in six years with a running back who set an all-time bowl record. He’s back too.
It was a good year to be part of the Sun Belt, in other words. And with the American Athletic Conference taking a potential hit in conference realignment — it lost Cincinnati, Houston and UCF to the Big 12 and replaced them with six Conference USA programs, not all of which have been good at football recently — it’s possible that the Sun Belt’s stature could continue to grow within the Group of 5 ranks.
That’s more of a long-term topic, though. We’re here to talk about 2023. The new, seven-team Sun Belt West produced a pair of sudden powers last fall — Troy and South Alabama went a combined 14-2 in conference play, and Troy stomped Coastal in the conference title game — and at first glance it appears the Trojans could lead the way again this fall. Or are we in for a surprise? Let’s preview the Sun Belt West!
Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 133 FBS teams. The previews will include 2022 breakdowns, 2023 previews and burning questions for each team.
After winning four straight division titles and a 2021 Sun Belt title under Florida-bound Billy Napier, Louisiana endured a reset year of sorts under Michael Desormeaux, going 0-4 in one-score finishes, losing to rival Louisiana-Monroe for the first time in five years and finishing 6-7. That opened a door, and Troy and South Alabama stormed through it.
First-year Troy coach Jon Sumrall inherited an experienced but hungry team that had been held back by a poor close-games record, and his first Trojans squad surged to seventh in defensive SP+ and 16th in special teams SP+. The offense was inconsistent, but a 10-6 win over South Alabama in Mobile made the difference in a two-way division race. South Alabama finished 10-3 with a similar recipe: 31st in defensive SP+, 21st in special teams SP+, quite a bit worse on offense (63rd). Elsewhere, Southern Miss surged from three to seven wins under second-year coach Will Hall, Texas State remained a stagnant 4-8 and replaced Jake Spavital with GJ Kinne, and two second-year veterans — Butch Jones at Arkansas State and Terry Bowden at ULM — continued to struggle for traction.
The hierarchy remains about the same to start, but Louisiana isn’t that far from turning a potential two-team race into a three-teamer. I like Southern Miss more than my numbers do, but a rough schedule (and years of nonstop quarterback injury issues) could be an impediment to another bowl win. And unless a big batch of transfers changes Texas State’s fortunes, the bottom three teams, at least for now, are pretty obvious too.
Who wins Sumrall-Wommack II? It wasn’t a total surprise that either Troy or South Alabama would be strong in 2022. Troy fielded both good offense and good defense during Chip Lindsey’s three seasons in charge (granted, not at the same time), and the Trojans’ ambitions were tamped down in part by a 4-9 record in one-score games. Things had fallen apart late in 2021, prompting the change, but Sumrall walked into a pretty solid situation. Kane Wommack, meanwhile, crafted an exciting defense in his 2021 debut at South Alabama and brought in some interesting offensive pieces — namely, Toledo quarterback Carter Bradley — for 2022.
It was still a surprise that these teams basically lapped the West field, though. South Alabama’s defense improved further, and Troy’s absolutely ignited behind linebacker and all-time NCAA tackles leader Carlton Martial and a nasty secondary. Neither offense maintained an incredible level of form, but Bradley threw for 3,336 yards and 28 touchdowns, and Troy’s Gunnar Watson thrived late in the season and threw for 318 yards and three scores in the Sun Belt championship game.
The teams remain approximate mirror images heading into 2023. Both offenses return their aforementioned quarterbacks and leading rushers (Troy’s Kimani Vidal, USA’s La’Damian Webb), both are replacing their leading receivers, and both have lines that got thinned out a bit — Troy replaces three starters (including two all-conference honorees), and while South Alabama replaces only two, most of last year’s second string is gone. Wommack brought in a pair of SEC transfers up front, while Sumrall diversified, signing Oklahoma State transfer Eli Russ, two FCS transfers and three jucos. In all, Sumrall was more aggressive in supplementing the offense through the portal, and both Russ and Memphis running back transfer Asa Martin could find immediate roles. That could allow the Trojans to make up ground after ranking far below the Jags offensively last year.
For South Alabama to win the division, then, they’ll have to make up the same ground on defense. They could absolutely do that. The Jaguars combined a well-rounded run defense with an aggressive and occasionally all-or-nothing secondary. Nearly the entire front six returns, including edge rusher Jamie Sheriff and linebacker Trey Kiser (10.5 tackles for loss), so it should be as hard as ever to run on them. Losing cornerback Darrell Luter Jr. hurts, but nickel back Yam Banks is incredible, and the safety corps returns mostly intact. Everything good about last year’s South Alabama defense should remain so.
Troy has a few more pieces to replace. Of the 16 defenders who saw at least 300 snaps last year, seven are gone, including Martial and all-conference tackle Will Choloh. But ace pass rushers T.J. Jackson and Richard Jibunor are back, as is all-conference corner Reddy Steward. Sumrall had no interest in allowing a drop-off, bringing in three transfers and five juco defenders, but aside from linebacker, there aren’t many holes to fill. The biggest one, in fact, may be in the coordinator role — Shiel Wood left for Tulane in February, so Sumrall roped in former Louisville linebackers coach and Army defensive co-coordinator Greg Gasparato.
SP+ likes Troy a bit more, and it also likes the Trojans’ schedule more. South Alabama has to play at not only Troy but also James Madison in Sun Belt play. (They head to Tulane and Oklahoma State in nonconference play too. Ambitious slate.) Troy plays only one conference road game against a top-100 foe. Maybe that makes the difference, but regardless, these two teams have excellent opportunities to build on last year’s progress.
How does Louisiana make up lost ground? It’s easy to simply assume that the new reality is the future reality. Troy and South Alabama were the power teams last year, and they return a lot of dudes, therefore they’ll be the power teams moving forward, right? But things do change. Just ask Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns went 34-5 over Billy Napier’s last four years in charge, and when the offense went wobbly in 2021, Napier’s last season, the defense picked up the slack.
In Desormeaux’s first season, Louisiana was mostly the same team. The Cajuns fell from 85th to 98th in offensive SP+ and from 15th to 29th on defense. They were similar athletically, and their on-paper quality was only a bit lower. But close games were their enemy, and they plummeted from 13-1 to 6-7.
Maybe they just don’t have that cutting edge anymore. Maybe they’ll just keep losing close games and slowly fading until Desormeaux is let go. Or maybe, with quarterback Ben Wooldridge, a big and experienced offensive line, and excellent defensive backs such as safety Kam Pedescleaux and corner Trey Amos returning, we’ll find that 2022 was an odd blip, and what Napier began building will continue in his absence.
I can see both scenarios, but I struggle to see immediate rebound potential here. The offense has stumbled a long way since ranking 37th in 2020, and while the line should be solid, the loss of receivers Michael Jefferson and John Stephens Jr. means the loss of the only two known home run hitters in the skill corps.
The defense should still be good — a running theme in the Sun Belt West — but coordinator LaMar Morgan leaned heavily on a tight rotation. Only 11 guys saw 300-plus snaps, and six are gone. Pedescleaux and Amos are great, but they might have more weight to carry after the loss of pass rushers Zi’Yon Hill and Andre Jones. Younger players such as tackle Marcus Wiser and nickel Courtline Flowers showed potential last year, but quite a few defenders will need to thrive in bigger roles. Otherwise, Louisiana will again be fighting for 6-6 instead of a West title.
Can Southern Miss find a dang quarterback (and keep him healthy)? Plenty of teams each year are forced to get through part of their season without their starting quarterback. Some teams struggle to figure out who their starting QB should be. That’s just how things go. But few have had to deal with more of a mess behind center than Southern Miss.
In 2019, the Golden Eagles went 7-6 behind Jack Abraham‘s 3,496 passing yards. Solid.
In 2020, Abraham got hurt, his backups struggled, and Southern Miss fell to 3-7. Head coach Jay Hopson was sent packing.
In 2021, Will Hall’s first season in charge, three freshman QBs and a sophomore all saw time, and the most successful passer on the team was … running back Frank Gore Jr. The Eagles plummeted to 129th in offensive SP+ and 3-9 overall.
In 2022, Ty Keyes won the QB job and got hurt almost immediately. Freshman Zach Wilcke stepped in, and played well for a bit but backslid (as freshmen often do), and Trey Lowe took over down the stretch. He looked great in the final two games … and transferred to Liberty.
Gore returns after rushing for 1,382 yards — he set a bowl record with 329 in the Eagles’ Lending Tree Bowl win over Rice — and he is joined by explosive if inconsistent Memphis transfer Dreke Clark. Slot receivers Jakarius Caston and Tiaquelin Mims averaged 14.8 yards per catch with eight touchdowns, and a line that had to start nine different guys last year returns seven of them. If someone is both good and healthy enough to keep the starting quarterback job, the offense could surge.
It will need to surge because while Southern Miss rose to 40th in defensive SP+, those heights might be difficult to match. Coordinator Austin Armstrong left for Alabama, and his replacement, Dan O’Brien, has holes to fill. The line returns mostly intact and boasts a number of exciting 300-pounders, but the Eagles have to replace three of four disruptive linebackers and five of last year’s top six defensive backs. Linebacker Averie Habas and safety Jay Stanley are stars, but they’re going to be looking around at a lot of new pieces in the starting lineup.
How will the Incarnate Word transplant work out at Texas State? It’s a new trend for the transfer portal era: We fall in love with an FCS offense, and someone imports it to FBS. In 2021, Western Kentucky’s Tyson Helton brought Houston Christian’s offensive coordinator (Zach Kittley), quarterback (Bailey Zappe) and star receivers to town, and the Hilltoppers leaped from 120th to sixth in offensive SP+.
Texas State is attempting something similar. Incarnate Word won 12 games with an absurd offense and nearly beat North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals last season. Star quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. finally ran out of eligibility, but after going just 13-35 in four seasons under Jake Spavital, TXST brought UIW coach GJ Kinne, both coordinators, a number of other assistants and at least seven UIW players — including three all-conference offensive linemen and all-conference defensive back Kaleb Culp — to San Marcos.
Kinne brought in jucos and other transfers for every unit of both the offense and defense, most notably speedy Arkansas quarterback Malik Hornsby, 1,200-yard juco running back Donerio Davenport, five UIW O-linemen, Utah State defensive tackle Tavian Coleman, Culp and three power-conference DBs. This Texas State team will not look like last year’s, for better or worse.
Spavital wasn’t opposed to quick changes either, of course. He was one of the first coaches to fully embrace the transfer portal, recruiting almost exclusively from it for part of his Texas State tenure. He lacked either the team culture or the talent (or both) to succeed, and, needless to say, almost completely forgoing high school recruiting in the state of Texas certainly has a downside. One assumes Kinne has some bridges to rebuild in that department, but while he does inherit a few exciting pieces — high-efficiency slot man Ashtyn Hawkins, pass rusher Jordan Revels, a solid cornerback duo in Chris Mills and Alonzo Edwards Jr. — transfers will probably decide Texas State’s 2023 fate once again. Will the UIW transplant take hold?
Which veteran coach breaks through, Butch Jones or Terry Bowden? Neither? Both? Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe arrived at hiring ultra-experienced head coaches in different ways. For ASU, it was an attempt at a quick rebound. After hiring and losing three future SEC coaches in three years (Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin), the school landed a long-term answer in Blake Anderson, who took the Red Wolves to six straight bowls before stumbling to 4-7 in 2020 and leaving for Utah State. The 55-year-old Jones, who won or shared conference titles at Central Michigan and Cincinnati and won nine games twice at Tennessee before stumbling and taking on a rehabilitation stint as an offensive analyst at Alabama, seemed like a logical choice.
For ULM, it was, first and foremost, about finding someone with any sort of connection to winning and a willingness to take on one of the hardest jobs in FBS. The Warhawks have finished above .500 just once since returning to FBS in 1994. The 67-year-old Bowden, a former Auburn head coach who had managed to take Akron to two bowls and a division title (while still going just 35-52 overall), fit the bill.
Jones appeared to inherit the more positive situation, but he’s gone just 5-19 in two seasons. Bowden hasn’t exactly lit the world afire, but he’s got three more wins, at least, after back-to-back 4-8 seasons.
ULM’s offense had its explosive moments, thanks primarily to big-play wideout Tyrone Howell, and when the defense brought anything whatsoever to the table, good things happened; the Warhawks allowed less than 5.7 yards per play on five occasions and went 4-1 in those games. Beyond maturation from players such as end Kenard Snyder and corners Lucius Tillery and Car’lin Vigers and the addition of lineman Adin Hutchinson (Kent State) and linebacker Ja’Terious Evans (Stephen F. Austin), there’s reason to believe second-year coordinator Vic Koenning could engineer more consistency.
Howell has some interesting battery mates in the receiving corps in slot man Alred Luke, Middle Tennessee transfer Bud Tolbert, juco transfer and onetime Ole Miss signee Marc Britt II and track star and former blue-chipper Bugs Mortimer. It’s unclear if ULM has what it needs at quarterback after Chandler Rogers‘ transfer to North Texas. Either veteran Jiya Wright or Louisville transfer Hunter Herring needs to come through.
From the perspective of recruiting rankings, Jones has a lot more to work with than Bowden. Unfortunately, no one has really looked the part yet, at least on a defense that has ranked 128th and 119th in defensive SP+ in two seasons. Third-year coordinator Rob Harley needs a few breakthrough players to join known entities linebacker Melique Straker and safety Eddie Smith. I’m honestly not sure who that might be. Kansas linebacker transfer Gavin Potter, perhaps?
The Arkansas State offense has been decent under coordinator Keith Heckendorf, but it’s battling turnover: Quarterback James Blackman and four of his top five targets are gone, as are three starters from a decent line. All-or-nothing wideout Jeff Foreman will be joined by Syracuse’s Courtney Jackson and, possibly, former ASU star wideout Corey Rucker, who transferred to South Carolina last season and moved back to Jonesboro but is awaiting an eligibility ruling. Jones signed a truckload of three-star freshman receivers, but he’ll still need someone to provide competence at quarterback, be it Colorado transfer JT Shrout or well-touted redshirt freshman Jaxon Dailey.
My 10 favorite players
That there are no quarterbacks on this list is probably telling. And I struggled to limit myself to five defenders.
RB Frank Gore Jr., Southern Miss. He came to Hattiesburg with a legendary name, and he’s going to leave a Hattiesburg legend. If his 2022 breakthrough is any indication, he could top 5,000 career yards from scrimmage by the end of 2023. A must-watch back.
WR Tyrone Howell, ULM. The 6-foot-2 senior is the ultimate field stretcher. Almost half his routes are deep routes, and he averaged 17.0 yards per catch, 10.9 yards per target and 2.7 yards per route run in 2022, all elite figures.
Slot Ashtyn Hawkins, Texas State. The former juco transfer thrived as an extension of the Bobcats run game in 2022: Most of his targets were short, but he caught nearly all of them and averaged 7.3 yards after catch and 2.4 yards per route run.
LG AJ Gillie, Louisiana. The Natchitoches, Louisiana, product started as a redshirt freshman for the Sun Belt champs in 2021, and he combined a 1.0% pressure rate with a 0.8% blown run-block rate and only two total penalties last season. A sure thing up front.
LT Nathan Thomas, Louisiana. A fellow sophomore last year, Thomas moved into the lineup alongside Gillie and allowed just three sacks with a 0.6% blown run-block rate. I think I know where I’d recommend Louisiana run the ball in short-yardage situations.
DE T.J. Jackson, Troy. The 265-pound Jackson joined an experienced and disruptive Troy front six and immediately stood out, leading the team in TFLs (14.5), sacks (eight) and run stops (13). He and speed rusher Richard Jibunor should again give quarterbacks nightmares.
LB Melique Straker, Arkansas State. The senior from Canada isn’t big (5-foot-10, 201 pounds), but you couldn’t tell it: He was second on the ASU defense with 7.5 TFLs and first with 14 run stops.
Nickel Yam Banks, South Alabama. One of the best nickel backs in the country for two years running, Banks was the only player in FBS to produce more than five interceptions (he had six), five tackles for loss (6.5) and five pass breakups (14!). He threw in five run stops for good measure.
S Jaden Voisin, South Alabama. A 2022 breakout star, Voisin was simultaneously a solid ball hawk (two picks, six breakups) and fourth linebacker (4.5 TFLs and a team-leading 11 run stops). With Banks and Voisin, the Jaguars secondary should be nasty once again.
CB Reddy Steward, Troy. A standout in a sea of solid corners, Steward picked off three passes, broke up 10 more and allowed a tiny 10.1 QBR as primary coverage guy in 2022. It will again be very difficult to pass on Troy this fall.
In 1968, 55 years ago, Troy won the NAIA national title. The Trojans destroyed Willamette (Oregon), 63-10, in the semis, then outlasted Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) in a 43-35 track meet in the final. Willamette moved to Division III in 1998, A&M-Kingsville and fellow semifinalist Northern State are in Division II … and Troy fielded one of the 40 or so best college football teams in America last year. Paths diverge sometimes.
In 1988, 35 years ago, Southern Miss officially handed the reins to Brett Favre. Curley Hallman’s Golden Eagles surged to 10-2 that season, losing to top-10 Auburn and Florida State teams and rolling through everyone else thanks in part to 2,271 yards and 16 touchdowns from the big-armed sophomore QB, who had spent part of his freshman season atop the depth chart. The Eagles would begin the next season with a last-minute upset of No. 6 Florida State as well.
Also in 1988, Stan Humphries went from ULM to the NFL. Two years after ULM’s Bubby Brister landed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round, Washington scooped up Humphries in the sixth round. Humphries had just led the Warhawks (then the Indians) to a 43-42 thriller over Marshall in the FCS title game, and he would go on to throw for 17,191 yards and 89 touchdowns in the NFL, primarily after joining San Diego in 1992.
In 2008, 15 years ago, South Alabama hired its first football coach. A Division I university in Alabama that doesn’t have a football team? It just didn’t feel right. And after a years-long study, the school’s trustees officially voted to add the sport in December 2007. The following February, Joey Jones came aboard as head coach. The Jags went 17-0 in 2009-10, first playing mostly prep schools, then taking on an FCS slate. They jumped to the Sun Belt in 2012, and Jones had them in a bowl by 2014. Jones couldn’t maintain this meteoric pace and was gone after a 4-8 campaign in 2017, but under his guidance the Jags went from theoretical to rock solid in barely half a decade.
Also in 2008, Texas State won its last conference title. While startups like UTSA, South Alabama, Old Dominion and others have found solid levels of success in FBS, Texas State has been playing football since the early 1900s but has yet to establish a solid level of success in the top subdivision.
The Bobcats won two Division II national titles in 1981 and ’82 and won or shared two Southland titles after jumping to FCS in the 2000s, but after early competitiveness under Dennis Franchione in 2013-14, they’ve averaged just 2.9 wins per season since 2015. Maybe Kinne and the UIW crew have the answers?
In 2013, 10 years ago, Arkansas State changed coaches for the fourth year in a row. It’s been confusing watching ASU’s gridiron struggles of late considering how much upheaval they fought through a decade ago while continuing to win. After firing Steve Roberts in 2010, the Red Wolves won 10 games under Hugh Freeze in 2011, and when he moved on to Ole Miss, they replaced him with Gus Malzahn, who went 10-3 and left for Auburn. Next up: Bryan Harsin, who went 8-5 and left for Boise State.
Blake Anderson took over, and he won at least seven games for each of the next six years. It was an incredible run, and it proved that ASU’s football infrastructure was strong. A decade later, however, some cracks have formed. Can Butch Jones turn things around?
In 2018, five years ago, Billy Napier took over at Louisiana. With decent support and access to a major talent pool in Louisiana, it long felt like the Ragin’ Cajuns program was a sleeping mid-major giant of sorts. It awakened for a bit under Mark Hudspeth, going 9-4 with matching New Orleans Bowl wins for four straight years (2011-14), but they faltered from there, going only 15-22 in his last three seasons. Under Napier, however, they reached their full potential.
The former Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney assistant got the Cajuns from 4-8 to 7-7 in his first season, then ignited a three-year run of double-digit wins. They finished 10-1 and 15th in the AP poll in 2020, then went 13-1 and finished 16th in 2021, his final season. He set the bar impossibly high for his successor, but Louisiana has decent bounce-back potential in Desormeaux’s second season.